The forgotten Indians who fought WWI for the Raj

In her latest book, author Shrabani Basu seeks to bridge the gap in our knowledge of soldiers from undivided India who fought in WW1.  

To wear a red poppy in your lapel is a ubiquitous form of homage in the U.K. to soldiers who died in the First World War. Yet in the ceremonies that mark Remembrance Day, there has till now been only a token recall of the contribution of a significant section of the British armed forces – soldiers from the subjugated colonies of British Empire who stood in the frontlines of the Great War.

One and a half million soldiers from undivided India fought in freezing trenches dressed only in khaki cotton gear on the western frontier; in Africa and West Asia; in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and Egypt. Of them, 72,000 died.

The gap in our historical knowledge of soldiers from undivided India, who constituted the biggest segment of troops from the colonies, will now significantly narrow with the publication of a new book by the London-based journalist and author Shrabani Basu.

In For King and Another Country, Ms. Basu — whose earlier biography of Noor Inayat Khan, the courageous Special Operations Executive of Indian origin in WW2, received much critical acclaim — seeks to shine a light on the lives and contributions of soldiers from the subcontinent in WW1.

Mining the vast and hitherto unused repository of official documents relating to Indian soldiers in the India Office Records at the British Library and National Archives; in newspapers of the period; and in interviews with the descendants of soldiers, Ms. Basu has put together a compelling and compassionate account of the lives of those who fought for causes that were not theirs in distant and unfamiliar theatres of war.

For the most part, Indian soldiers were cannon fodder for the British army. As chief guest General David Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff, 2010-2013, put it: “Britain needed mass,” and Indian soldiers provided it.

Mr. Basu’s book tells us of children as young as 10 who fought in the frontline; of special arrangements made by the British to accommodate caste and religion, including separate funeral provisions; of the enduring blight of untouchability, even on foreign shores; and of outstanding examples of bravery, earning 11 Indians the Victoria Cross.

Clearly, the colonial rulers had well imbibed the lessons of 1857 and the disastrous consequences of religious unity that bound Indian soldiers in opposition to colonial rule. Through photographs and text, Ms. Basu puts faces and hearts to a population hitherto an amorphous mass in the popular mind. There is Sukha, the Dalit cleaner whose dead body both caste Hindus and Muslims reject and is ultimately buried with due dignity by a church in Brockenhurst; there is the dashing and brave 19-year old aviator Indra Lal ‘Laddie’ Roy, a tragically young victim of combat. We are introduced to Hardit Singh Malik, another RAF aviator, later to become a distinguished diplomat in independent India. There is Khudada Khan, a machine gunner with the 129th Baluchis who was the last man alive in October 1914 in a German attack near Ypres; and many more participants of that distant war.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 4:47:49 AM |

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